Several times a week, Joan Schweizer-Hoff sits with someone who is grieving and listens to a story of loss.
She meets bewildered faces and free-flowing tears with hugs and words of comfort, expressing compassion to those who are mourning the death of a loved one.
Many times, the loss comes after a long illness. Less often, it comes suddenly from an accident or suicide. But when the death is due to unnatural causes, and particularly if it involves a young person, it's an event of a completely different form and magnitude, said Schweizer-Hoff, director of program services for The Dougy Center, Portland's branch of the National Center for Grieving Children and Families.
The trained grief counselor met last Friday with Banks High School teachers shocked by the Dec. 7 death of sophomore class president Devon Brown.
'There isn't a concrete answer to why someone takes their own life,' Schweizer-Hoff told the group. 'It's cognitive dissonance.'
What experts know is that suicide appears to be pushed by intense psychological pain the person can't seem to surmount. Low levels of seratonin in the brain are another piece of the puzzle.
Recognizing the warning signs that someone might be considering suicide isn't easy. They range from changes in behavior lasting more than a month to substance abuse and rebellion.
Avoiding friends, an inability to focus, angry or emotional outbursts, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, rebellion, expressions of hopelessness and talk of killing oneself are other clues.
In Brown's case, none of that appeared obvious. Teachers said they'd noticed nothing amiss as she went through her days at Banks High School in recent weeks.
'Most probably there was much more going on with her internally than she let us know,' said Schweizer-Hoff.
If a person recognizes one or more warning signs in a friend, she said, it's important to take action.
'If you're worried about someone, talk to an adult you trust,' she advised. 'Listen and be available.
'Offer to go with the person to the doctor. Say 'I'm going to stay with you all night,'' she said. 'Show compassion and show interest. Give the person the message their life is important.'
Banks School District officials invited Schweizer-Hoff to meet with teachers whose own emotional and mental resources were taxed to the limit by last week's crisis.
'Some of them asked, 'How come she wasn't acting like a depressed, suicidal person?,'' Schweizer-Hoff said. 'Especially with teenagers, suicide is an impulsive act.
'Something happens, and they react. They take it very personally.'
Students who knew Brown - and even those who didn't - will have questions and concerns for weeks to come, Schweizer-Hoff said.
She recommended that staff members 'acknowledge that this very sad thing happened in the community and offer students a choice to talk or not talk.' Keeping routines as normal as possible will give students a sense of safety, she added.
In addition to helping students cope with the loss, Schweizer-Hoff was also there for the adults in the school. Although teachers 'are really good at taking care of others,' she said, they often neglect their own needs. 'It's important to address the crisis directly,' she said.
Help is close by
A guidebook called 'Helping Teens Cope with Death' is available for $10 through The Dougy Center by calling 503-775-3683. More information about teen suicide and related issues can be found at www.dougy.org.